published: February 25, 2019 - last updated: February 27, 2019
The right is getting more extreme and disconnected from reality every year. Why haven't we been able to do anything about it? We have an army of funny, intelligent, hard-working commentators, commedians, and journalists all working to find and speak the truth. What's going on?
It's simple, we're only talking to ourselves, and not talking to conservatives. We haven't been getting through to them because we haven't been even trying to talk in terms they'll actually listen to.
Let me be more specific. I've experienced this frustration very directly, as I watch my parents and extended family slip deeper into intolerance, hatred, conspiracy theories, and the hilarious notion that they as christians are the oppressed group. But whenever I watch a brilliant takedown of agent orange's lies and racism by John Oliver (opens new window), or Vox giving a thorough examination of the right's insane descent past the Overton Window (opens new window), or a cogent look at the fascist roots of modern conservatism by Cody Johnston (opens new window), or an incisive look at how white supremacism has been seeping into mainstream conservative talking points by The Alt-Right Playbook (opens new window), I want to share these things with my family, but immediately stop myself. Why? It's simple. Because the piece probably swore too much, or had a bunch of visible tattoos, or made jokes about weird sex. In other words, they assumed a world view that I know is not only incredibly alien to my family, but also considered deeply sinful and dangerous. All of these voices, even (or especially) the established and respectable ones like The New York Times, are poisoned in the eyes of conservatives. They can't accept obvious facts or clearly reasonable ideas because they don't trust the messengers. They think these liberal voices have been corrupted by drugs or sexual deviance, or that they're "under the influence of Satan" (yes, seriously).
Why are we just shouting at our own side? Various studies have demonstrated that sharing opposing views reframed in terms of the listener's core beliefs can actually persuade them (opens new window). This means that conservatives can outgrow their intolerance and fear, but not all at once. We instead have to embrace incrementalism (opens new window), and resolve to change them slowly, and with arguments from their perspective, not ours.
All of the media we currently produce is incredibly enjoyable for us, and effective at galvanizing our beliefs and soothing us (which might be a bad thing, calm is akin to complacency after all), but it's doing nothing to actually persuade anyone or heal the divide.
The white nationalists have been very adeptly practicing this very tactic, but on a different group in a different way. They've been intentionally luring young white men towards racism and fascism with memes. The conversion slide begins with jokes and memes that are legitimately funny to a general audience, but that happen to appeal to young white men. Then shocking humor about women and brown people and gays slowly creeps in and gives young white men a thrill of freedom and superiority, and eventually they've been softened up enough accept outright beliefs of genocide and patriarchal brutality.
We need to be as advanced as our enemies.
I'm not sure how to go about this tactically, or how to go about it without being manipulative, but I'll certainly speak more about this in the future. For now I'll just leave you with some thoughts I've had tumbling around my mind. Maybe you'll have some feedback, or ideas of your own.
All of this activity would have to be done very carefully, and with as much transparency as you could get away with while still being effective. The only moral way to do this (and the only way to ensure it doesn't blow up and turn into a favorite fox news talking point about liberal manipulation conspiracies), is to make it obvious to anyone who chooses to look closer that the organization or person has the mission of healing the divide and finding common ground.
And a final question: is it a just thing to do, to let them off the hook? Is it okay to let them get away with all these years of hatred and oppression by letting them slowly switch over? I don't know, maybe not. But it's certainly more pragmatic.
So there's my simple plea for liberals of all varieties, but especially the ones doing the important work of truth-telling. Stop telling me the truth. I already know the truth, and I'm pulling for us as hard as I can. Instead start trying to persuade all the conservatives who could agree with you. Some of them, I assume are good people (cough), and can outgrow their intolerance if we make an effort to understand their fears, their misconceptions, their core beliefs, and meet them where they are.